Plausibility in Fantasy

To Alexei Mutovkin: An open letter.

Thank you for writing me. "Plausibility in Fantasy" is an excellent topic, and one that fascinates me.

In answer to your questions, I can of course speak only for myself; other writers would give you very different answers.

While I am composing I have no abstract ideas, purposes, or policies in mind, but am intent only on following the story. But when I think about my story from "outside" it, and when I read other people's fantasies, I do think about such matters in a general way — an intensely and immediately practical way, which often leads to conscious imitation (something artists of course do constantly).

For example, Tolkien's references to places, people, events (often of long ago) that are not part of the immediate story: these give the reader a conviction of the reality of the immediate scene — because it is shown to be part of a much greater landscape, a long history, a whole world of which it is only a glimpse. This is a strong technique for making an imagined world plausible. This is a technique which one can imitate, performing it in one’s own way.

Now, with Tolkien, that history and geography already existed in his writings before The Lord of the Rings. But in my fantasies, I have often mentioned events or places which I didn't yet know anything about — for example, some of the later exploits of Ged mentioned early in A Wizard of Earthsea. These were, when I wrote them, merely words — "empty" nouns. I knew that if my story took me to them, I would find out who and what they were. And this indeed happened. . .

In the same way, I drew the map of Earthsea at the very beginning, but I didn't know anything about each island till I "went to" it.

Then there is detail. The more realistic, exact, "factual" detail in a fantasy story, the more sensually things and acts are imagined and described, the more plausible the world will be. After all, it is a world made entirely of words. Exact and vivid words make an exact and vivid world.

The fantasy writer must "believe in" the world she is creating, not in the sense of confusing it in any way with the actual bodily world, but in the sense of giving absolute credence to the work of the imagination — dwelling in it while writing, and trusting it to reveal itself.

I believe that as soon as wishful thinking or a conscious political or didactic purpose intrude on that credence, they deform it and the story loses plausibility. Wishful thinking gives us the feeble kind of fantasy where everything is easy, and you never have to feed or water or look after the horse you rode all day. An ideological purpose produces a sermon, or satire (which is not fantasy, and has very different standards of plausibility, since it is a mirror held up to actual life).

The touchstone to plausibility in imaginative fiction is probably coherence. Realistic fiction can be, perhaps must be, incoherent in imitation of our perceptions of reality. Fantasy, which creates a world, must be strictly coherent to its own terms, or it loses all plausibility. The rules that govern how things work in the imagined world cannot be changed during the story.

This is probably one of the reasons why fantasy is so acceptable to children, and even when frightening may give the reader reassurance: it has rules. It asserts a universe that, in some way, makes sense.

I hope these random thoughts are useful. I enjoyed writing them down, and if you don't mind, I may put them onto my web site!

With all good wishes,

Ursula Le Guin


"A Message about Messages" — A new essay by UKL, first published by CBC MagazineLink">A Message about Messages     About Writing     Plausibility Revisited »


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Updated Monday March 21 2011